Empty Nest Weekend #1

Our son with autism spent his first weekend in his new group home.

It was a flurry of activity for mom and dad; writing rent and utility checks, buying furniture (hint – if you have a used hotel furniture place in town, you can save a ton), hanging curtains, buying extra clothes and toiletries…

Joey bed frame LOL

This sign on the bed frame box made me laugh.  It is the mockery of all of our precise planning.  You just KNOW it can’t be true.

Still, the reports back from the staff were more than encouraging.

Joey slept well in the new room.  That’s big.  One reason we’ve been unable to travel much with him is that he can’t sleep in strange places.  He gets up and wanders all night, then inflicts all of the consequences of sleep deprivation on us the next day.

Joey room Thurman

It helped that he’d been to this place on a past respite weekend and that we brought in some familiar furnishings from our house, such as his own blankets, the desk for his laptop, his rolling office chair and the cross you can spot in the middle of this picture –>

 

 

Joey chose to socialize rather than isolate.  Even with his computer and a VCR available in his room, he hung out in common areas with the other guys.  That news did our hearts good.  He’s going to have a community there.  He’s not feeling lost.

Of course we spent our first night as empty nesters fretting and pacing and crying.

Nah, actually, we went out for sushi.  And a Sake Bomb.  Proud to say I downed mine faster than a young husband and wife competing with me down the bar.

Caregiving.  It makes you hardcore.

Joey post move Sake Bomb

 

No trick! This is a treat…

Governor Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota officially proclaimed November as Family Caregivers Month!  Give his official Proclamation a read – that’s you lurking somewhere in the statistics and words of praise.  1

No, you’re not crazy.

Well, maybe you are.  But since care giving puts a whuppin’ on body, heart and mind over time there’s no surprise that our lives reflect the damage.

I’m currently reading Being Mortal but Atul Gawande.  The author is a surgeon who also writes outstanding prose that invites the lay person to look at medical issues and medical professionals to look at the human impact of their work.

Yesterday, I read his description of an adult daughter caring for her father,

Taking care of a debilitated, elderly person in our medicalized era is an overwhelming combination of the technological and the custodial… The burdens for today’s caregiver have actually increased from what they would have been a century ago.  Shelley had become a round-the-clock concierge/chauffeur/schedule manager/medication-and-technology troubleshooter, in addition to cook/maid/attendant, not to mention income earner.  Last minute cancellations by health aides and changes in medical appointments played havoc with her performance at work, and everything played havoc with her emotions at home… 

She felt her sanity slipping.

Misery (or is it madness?) loves company, and I was reminded of what I wrote in the intro to Raising A Child With Autism,

Maybe you are an amateur trying to be caregiver, therapist, clinician, advocate, mommy, daddy and everything else to a loved one living with autism. You feel like a lone idiot with a leaky hose when the job needs a landscape company.

So if you’re out there feeling depressed, or enraged, or exhausted, or or or or… just repeat after Dr. Sheldon Cooper:

sheldon not crazy

Flashing before my eyes

Not my life, but my son’s life.  That’s what flashing before my eyes.

Today we have the meeting to set up his move to a group home.  All of the staff will be there, both the folks from his day program and from the house where he will live.

It’s a positive thing, of course, something for which we’ve (my wife and I) waited for a long time.

I can’t speak for her feelings, and I can only guess at our son’s, so I’ll shift to first person here.

I realize that my role in my son’s life is not over, but much of what I can do and shape is.  I’ve formed what I can in his life, second guessed myself to the point of agony, been critiqued and judged plenty from without, as well as encouraged and supported at precious points along the way.

I can look back on…

 

JOEY Yucaipa

 

…who Joey was…

 

 

Daves mom and joe

 

 

…who he’s become…

 

 

 

20170723_110957

 

 

…and ponder who he’ll be.

 

 

 

 

Something of me travels with him, of course.  And I pray that it is whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable (Philippians 4:8).  God knows and every day reminds me that there’s plenty of me that needs to be ignored and forgotten, and I can only pray that little of that drags along with Joey.

So a new leg of the journey commences, over territory we’ve not been and over which we’ll have ever diminishing control.  But ain’t that life.

An old priest I knew always included a warning in his message at the baptism of a child.  You (parents) know that you’re handing your child over to God now.  You’re no longer in charge of the outcomes.

As my life flashes before my eyes, and Joey’s plays across my imagination, I’ll trust that warning, and know that all of our lives are in the hands of the One who’s cared for us beyond all deserving.

 They will declare,  “The Lord is just!  He is my rock!  There is no evil in him!”  (Psalm 92:15, NLT)

Don’t Call Us

Our publisher’s site features a bit from our book today.

If you are grappling with frustration, especially if it’s born of perfectionism and the constant setbacks of care giving, you might find this little selection useful.

pathetic-7If our efforts to raise houseplants have been hit and miss, imagine some of the misadventures of raising a son with autism. Caregiving provides instant and constant experiences of inadequacy. Just as we’ve tried various strategies to keep the plants growing, we’ve sought out an array of therapies, settings, medications, specialists, diets and more to bring out the best in Joey’s life. And even with all that help, there are plenty of withered efforts to report.

It’s not all gloom and doom.  Some of the spiritual uplift (we hope) of the book comes in as well.

Hoping you have some good growth and blooming amid all your fails and weeds today.

Killed by life

The idea of grieving the living isn’t new to me.  A grief counselor opened it up at an autism conference I attended years ago.  There are crossovers between disability and death – dreams are lost, so are familiar comforts and joys.

Today I bumped into a good article on this topic, from the American Academy of Bereavement.  In a 2015 piece entitled Unconventional Grief: Grieving Someone Alive, AAB shares good insight,

jesus-weptThis form of grief, just like grieving someone who is deceased, does not change the level of attachment to the person. Simply, this person is no longer acting how they were before and have had a dramatic shift in personality… Unlike when someone dies, you are unlikely to experience positive emotions while grieving someone alive. When someone passes, you are surrounded by the comfort of their loved ones and are often able to look at the joy of their life. This rarely happens with unconventional or ambiguous grief. Just like when someone dies, you are likely to be overcome with sadness. However, the reminder of your sadness is constant…

The article focuses on sudden change in an adult, such as drug addiction or the onset of mental illness.  For caregivers of children with developmental disabilities, the loss isn’t so much who the person used to be, but who you dreamed of them becoming.  There’s grief either way.

Read the whole thing.  There are some positive suggestions for the grieving caregiver, including this one which has been so true of living with our son’s autism,

Open yourself up to change. One of the hardest parts of grieving someone alive is that you are forced to accept a changed relationship that you do not want. It may be difficult for you to look on a loved one in a different life, but you may be able to experience a rewarding relationship with them in new ways than before. Focusing on finding joy in your new relationship will help keep your mental state positive rather than gloomy.

Finding joy in Joey-as-Joey, rather than as the Joey of our daydreams, has been an essential care giving tool and its own reward.

And Jesus opened his mouth and taught them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:2-4)

 

What’s left

We are almost sitcom laugh track worth ’round here today.

Joey, our 23 year old with autism, has a nasty cough and is home in a NyQuil haze.  He’s intoning Disney movie lines in a voice that sounds like the audio of a slow motion replay.

Melissa (mom/caregiver) is suffering from a double shot – one shot of staying up all night to care for Joey and the other a shot of recurring pain from a chronic illness.  She’s closed her eyes for a few minutes (btw I think she’s pretty when she sleeps but that’s just editorializing and so I’ll move on).

Tyrion Aftermath-of-the-attack

Tyrion Lannister visits our living room today.  From here.

I (Tim – dad/caregiver) am sittin’ here typing this while my eyes keep closing and head drops on the verge of sleep.  I have the day off but I’m sleep deprived from some kind of phantom leg pain (possible arthritis although disc problem is another one the doctor threw in to consider).

We are all beat up in one way or another, but not by one another.  If anything, there’s a tenderness in the house that is surprising given how cranky pain can make any one of us.

When all else fails (and hey, what doesn’t when you’re a caregiver?), your kindness remains a gift to those in your care.  On days when all of you are hurting, you find out that everyone in the household is a care giver and a recipient of care at the same time.

Letting another’s head rest on your shoulder is a successful intervention, “How are you?” is deep communication and “Sit down, I’ll get that for you” is heroic service.

Sometimes what’s left is you, and you’re plenty.

I sent a prayer request to a friend in the midst of our family sick day, and what he sent back says it pretty well,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

Reading while waiting

clock

Pic from here.

On this end, we’re still waiting on a new meeting date to get our son’s residential placement going.

This morning while waiting for the bus to his day program, I ran into a young woman’s blog piece about living with her brother and his autism.

What she describes gave me a brief shiver of memory.  We endured some of this stuff for years.  Yes, our son has come a long way; no, that doesn’t erase the gut reaction when reading

First of all, nobody truly recognises how tough it is merely to care for someone who needs assistance with everything. Stephen is 6 ft. 2 and has to be bathed, washed and nappies changed. Physically, and mentally, it is downright exhausting. His sleep schedule is non-existent and his meltdowns are unpredictable. His self-harming happens unexpectedly and can last for indeterminate amounts of time. These are the children you don’t see in autism awareness adverts; headbutting walls, smacking their heads, nipping and biting and scratching. It is the most draining thing to devote hours upon hours simply trying to prevent someone from hitting themselves, and a task that seems so stupid and meaningless in nature when you know that, come a few hours’ time, it will simply happen again.

And the decades between the young woman and our aging (aged?) selves evaporate as she describes our common worry,

I am 19; I should spend my days fretting about having enough money to go out at the weekend and passing exams to get my degree. My biggest fear about the future should be whether I’m going to achieve my dream job, what countries I will travel to. Instead, I worry about what will become of my brother. He understands nothing of pain and manipulation and danger. My brother is so bearing on the spectrum that he needs round the clock care, and when I am the only one left to do that, how will I cope?

OK, back to waiting.

Loneliness

Just caught some stats from across the pond,

  • Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day…
  • A report by Carers UK revealed that 8 out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one.

That’s right, half of people with special needs experience loneliness in the course of a day.  But on top of that, 80% of those who care for them feel lonely or isolated – and care giving is cited as the source of the emotion.

We get that here.  Care giving wipes out spontaneity, for one thing.  A friend calls and says, “Hey, wanna go down to the bar and watch the game?” and all you can say is “I can’t” or, at best, “Well, I can watch the first quarter but then have to get home.”

Social life withers because the needs of the people in our care keep us pinned down with tasks or plain old being “on watch, just in case.”

When some neighbors invited us to join them around a fire pit on a cool evening, Melissa and I had to take turns. One of us stayed in to watch our son, the other socialized, then we switched. We couldn’t have fun as a couple.

And many folks are uncomfortable coming into a care giving environment, and friends or family who are willing can come only so often without being turned into exhausted, lonely care givers themselves.

Tony Gaines Starz

Tim (right) and his lifetime pal.

We just enjoyed a great weekend.  A childhood friend (of Tim’s) and his wife spent two days here as part of their drive around America.  They didn’t ask much of us – in fact, they were clear that they wanted to see us, not go sightseeing around Sioux Falls.

So we relaxed and shared great memories and ate and laughed and talked about what was on our hearts and minds and… were anything but lonely.  It was wonderful.

Melissa StarzOur son with autism, Joey, was his usual self, staying on the periphery until he was comfortable with the strangers.  You can see the “I’m not sure about this” posture in this picture.  But notice that he’s not detached – he’s looking right into the camera (eye contact is elusive when autism is in the house).  Melissa (middle) is obviously not feeling lonely, stressed or like a caregiver for the moment.  (Note: being a caregiver doesn’t mean you can’t be cute, too.)

The point is that any and all of you who know families in care giving mode – and by that I don’t mean just with autism, but Alzheimer’s, chronic illness, aged parents, disability and just about any situation that can confine one person and others to provide care – have great power to intrude on loneliness and isolation.

YOU are a gift.  Yeah, it’s great when a neighbor clears my driveway in winter.  That saves me some stress and strain.  But even greater is time to laugh and talk and BS about stuff.  All of that human social glue that care giving dries up, you can spill afresh by your time with caregivers and those in our care.

And don’t forget the goatherds.  They get lonely, too.

 

You open your email and…

On behalf of the Placement Committee, I would like to offer a tour at [a special needs group home] to Joey Fountain.

I like to write but all of the descriptions of my reaction to this message get trite. You know, my jaw hit the floor, my eyes popped out of my head kind of stuff.

Joey, our son with autism, is 23 now.  We’ve hoped for and dreaded this opportunity for years.  I can’t blog a whole lot on it at the moment because our thoughts and emotions are bouncing off the walls (man, this is getting cheesier by the keyboard stroke).

[Let me throw in one practical suggestion.  If you are a Google user, Google Docs is a great resource.  My wife started a document with our growing list of questions and stuff to get done as we approach the transition meetings and the move itself.  It auto-saves, so you can’t lose stuff by closing it in an emotional haze.  You can use email to invite in others (you know, your spouse and other care giving ally types), so they can open it on their screen and add to it as well.

If you are awake all night stewing about the issue (as are we), you can just add to the document and your allies will be able to see it when they open the document later.  No need to make copies and then more copies as you revise – you can all be online editing together in real time.]

In Raising a Child with Autism, I shared a lovely little vignette about Melissa raising gardenias and then wrote,

Giving away gardenias hardly compares to the “giveaway” in our future.  Joey is on a waiting list to move into a group residence.  It is uncomfortable to think about looking into his bedroom, just down the hall from ours, and seeing an empty space.  Like Melissa’s gardenias, he’s grown in beautiful ways.  And the time is coming to let him go.

That was composed in reflective calm, when the “waiting list” was just a vague background reality, something that wouldn’t really mean anything until…  until a couple of weeks ago when I opened my email and there it was, specific, real and hulking in the foreground of our lives.

I’m sure Melissa and I will share more here as we walk through this together.  Your prayers and encouragement mean a great deal.

For now, here’s a sweet picture of Joey, taken one 4th of July in Sioux Falls.  We know holidays can be a challenge for caregivers – here’s hoping that your family “fireworks” stay far off in the sky.

Smiling Joey